Devil’s Paintbox, by Victoria McKernan (fiction) – teens struggle on Western frontier

book cover of Devil's Paintbox by Victoria McKernan Life on the western frontier was far more difficult than the Little House on the Prairie books showed us.

Aiden and Maddy are the last surviving members of their family whose homesteading dreams turned into a row of graves on the bleak Kansas prairie.

Their unlikely savior is gruff Jackson, recruiting for the even-tougher demands of the Pacific Northwest’s logging camps, who only agrees to take along Maddy if Aiden signs on for an extra year of logging work to pay their way West.

Friendly Nez Perce, not-always-friendly U.S. Army soldiers, and the dreaded smallpox shadow the wagon train, as they traverse open range, strain up mountain grades, and struggle across rivers.

Aiden toughens up as they travel, but will he be able to hold his own against the roughs and rowdies of the lumber camps? Adventure, peril, and possibilities fill this gripping tale of the West.

Book info: The Devil’s Paintbox / Victoria McKernan. Random House, 2009. [author bio] [publisher site] [book trailer] Review copy and cover image courtesy of the publisher.

My Book Talk: The shoe leather soup is gone, so Maddie and Aiden will starve to death soon, just as their family did on the Kansas prairie in 1865. But over the hill rides Jefferson J. Jackson, recruiting workers for the lumber camps in Washington.

He allows the teens to join the wagon train going west, warning them that “any way you can think up to die is out there waiting” on the trail. Aiden agrees that his first two years’ wages will go to Jackson in payment for their travel, and they head west, away from the graves on the hillside, away from the dried-up homestead.

Jackson is all too correct, and dangers face the travelers day and night – rampaging rivers to cross, wolves stalking them, Indians who might attack, and diseases with no cures.

Aiden works with his bow and arrow, bringing in deer and rabbits for his sister Maddie to cook. He meets friendly Indians who cross their trail from time to time, teaching him bareback horse riding and improving his hunting skills.

But soon smallpox, “the Devil’s Paint”, appears at a nearby fort, and the deadly disease threatens them all. The wagon train’s doctor soon runs out of medicines, the Indians blame government-issued blankets for the epidemic, and survival is now a gamble for everyone.

Will Aiden make it to the lumber camp? How will a scrawny, malnourished 15-year-old keep up with strong men and dangerous work? Smallpox is just the first challenge that he must face as he tries to live long enough to grow up. (One of 5,000 books recommended on

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.